Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two Networks Flop in Reporting on New Poll

By Stuart Rothenberg

If there is something surprising about the new ABC News/Washington Post survey of likely Iowa Democratic caucus attendees, it isn’t the fact that Sen. Barack Obama (30 percent) holds a narrow lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (26 percent) and John Edwards (22 percent). It’s the curious way ABC and rival NBC reported on and interpreted the results during their Monday night national news programs.

For years, Independent political analysts have been warning about reporters’ tendencies to compare polls conducted by different polling firms, to over-interpret small changes in poll results and to treat the results of the most recent survey as if they are etched into stone. And yet that’s what the two networks seemed to do.

Interestingly (though probably not surprisingly), ABC News’s partner in the Iowa survey, the Washington Post, played the story in a much more measured and thoughtful way.

ABC’s World News opened with the network’s new survey, treating it with a breathless quality deserving of momentous breaking news. In fact, the ballot test in the new poll wasn’t all that different from the previous ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted in late July, which had Obama leading with 27 percent, to 26 percent each for both Clinton and Edwards. Obama’s lead both in July and in the most recent survey are statistically insignificant.

Oddly, ABC’s Kate Snow commented that one of the interesting things about the new survey is that likely caucus goers have “come to a different conclusion than what national polls say.” That’s a strange comment since the difference between the Iowa numbers and the national numbers has existed for many months, and many observers have questioned the networks’ focus on national survey data.

A minute or two later in the show, anchor Charles Gibson told chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos that he was struck by “what retail politics this all is.” This is news? Gibson didn’t know that Iowa (and New Hampshire) are famous for being retail politics states?

NBC also botched its report of the new survey. First, Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, referring to the Iowa race and the new poll, said “It’s tightening among the Democrats,” and then NBC Chief White House Correspondent David Gregory compounded the error by telling viewers that “For the first time, [Obama] has a lead in the state.” Given the results of the previous ABC News/Washington Post poll, “tightening” is not an apt description. And of course, Obama held a “lead” in the July survey.

It’s worth noting, though nobody did, that the July ABC News/Washington Post survey was dramatically different than other surveys taken at the time. This does not mean that the July ABC News survey was wrong or that the current one is incorrect. It is a reminder, however, that it’s better to be cautious about reading too much into this, or any, poll – even if you are paying for the survey.

In fact, some campaign operatives with the Presidential campaigns are skeptical about many of the polls being conducted in Iowa because of the difficulty in predicting exactly who will participate in the January caucuses.

This item also appeared on Political Wire on November 20, 2007.